For readers of a delicate disposition - and with a certain political persuasion - what I'm about to write may be the revolutionary left's equivalent of pissing in the altar. Don't say I didn't warn you.
During my last year as a Socialist Workers Party member, i.e. up to November 2009, I had a habit of expressing views which the leadership, and a majority of my comrades, disagreed with. There was, however, one view I didn't express: that the age of the weekly socialist newspaper may be over. Such a suggestion is rarely voiced on the organised revolutionary left. I never expressed this view because, although it was something I occasionally wondered about, it was hardly the most pressing issue at that time.
There is a tendency in organisations to take certain things for granted. Habits form; routines become fixed. For all the commitment to tactical flexibility, a socialist group can easily become inflexible with assumptions that remain unchallenged. The assumption that any socialist organisation must have a newspaper - probably weekly - is embedded in the culture of this country's revolutionary left.
It is sometimes claimed - by advocates and detractors alike - that the practice stems from the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks prior to the 1917 revolution. This is rather fanciful. Iskra and Pravda may be cited as relevant historical references, but the reason is more prosaic: most current socialist newspapers were launched when newspapers were the obvious and most attractive way of communicating ideas.
Socialist Worker, for example, was launched in 1968, when running a newspaper was the natural thing to do if you wanted to convey alternative news and ideas to your target audience. Some grand claims have been made for 'the paper as an organiser', but in truth it's long been possible to build a socialist group without a regular paper.
The one thing a group really can't do without is meetings. The practice of regularly meeting face-to-face is pretty much what defines an organisation - there is simply no substitute for it, even in the age of social media. That's especially true when organising at local level (whether as an independent local group or as part of a larger national organisation).
Some kind of published material has always been vital, of course, but a regular (e.g. weekly) publication is another matter. The need for independent media isn't identical to the supposed 'need' for a weekly paper.
So, in reality, a newspaper has always been desirable for socialist groups primarily as means of political communication. It establishes key political arguments and conveys ideas and information in an accessible way, which helps inform political practice. But its role as an organiser has tended to be rather indirect (and far from indispensable).
The problem today is that there's a mismatch between the chosen means of communication and how people actually communicate. Any socialist organisation's main target audience is the young: the majority of new members will be under 30. Most under-30s today don't read newspapers. Socialists are therefore trying to reach their audience with means of communication that that audience doesn't bother with. This is an obvious paradox.
Consider what has happened in the last 10-20 years. Newspaper circulation has fallen steeply, while internet use has grown and grown. Readers increasingly get their news or politics online. This trend is most pronounced among young people, many of whom have never been regular newspaper buyers in the first place.
Expectations around news have shifted dramatically. News arrives fast. It is common for readers to feel the news in their daily newspaper is already a little stale, especially if they also read online (and if they're a Twitter user it might feel positively ancient). This is an even greater problem for a weekly paper.
We've also seen the rise of the free newspaper. The scrumpled-up Metro newspaper, abandoned by a commuter, is one of the defining features of our contemporary urban landscape. Many young people don't expect to have to pay for their news. They read it online or get it in the Metro for free.
The media landscape has changed massively. We all know this, yet much of the left carries on as if there have been only superficial alterations. Commendable attempts are made to branch out into the internet, but it's assumed the core must remain the paid-for newspaper (despite inevitably making a loss, requiring subsidy from the organisation's members).
The demands of selling the newspaper too often dictate the organisation's cycle of activity, largely irrespective of what is happening in the outside world: the weekly city centre Saturday sale is sacrosanct. Activists are dedicated and hard-working, but this routine - fixed and inflexible - can sadly have a distorting effect on what they do.
The organised left needs to speak the language of those it is engaging with, using the same means of communication. Does this mean there's no place for print? Far from it. It's just unlikely that a weekly, paid-for newspaper is the wisest of investments. Any socialist group today will benefit from a more flexible approach, able to respond dynamically to events in the world outside. The massive commitment of a weekly paper becomes an obstacle.
Anyway, the established groups will probably carry on doing their thing and ignore the observations above. They will continue mixing up the surface elements of Leninist practice and its inner essence, deceiving themselves that methods appropriate to one era are timeless truths. If Lenin did it then it must be correct - despite Lenin's own numerous tactical twists and turns, despite Lenin's repeated warnings not to claim specific methods are universal laws, despite the fact there's been rather a lot of technological change in the last century and perhaps we should let that inform our thinking.
We all agree that we badly need our own media. A left-wing organisation, able to pool resources, is well-placed to contribute to the creation of new, independent and radical media. Socialist ideas remain indispensable, but how they are communicated has to evolve.
Our media need to reflect the world as it is today, not an age which is drawing to a close, and speak to the generations who will shape the future of the Left. Share